Inside the Designer Zone

Rachel Northrop
April 3, 2008

Florence is a city of the masters. Michelangelo, da Vinci, Dante, Vasari: the evidence of their capolavori is apparent in the buildings, the lines of tourists. Even the street names echo with the memories of great artists. Every street-corner display says Armani, Ferragamo, Versace, and Prada, and every other pedestrian, it seems, carries tote bags bearing such names. While the finest craftsmanship is beautiful to behold, it is not always a practical choice for our lives. The same way the David is not meant for my living room, a Gautier gown is not meant to be worn running down via Nazionale to catch the bus.


So where to turn when you are sick of Sisley and the price tag of Prada is too steep? A group of Florentine merchants seemed to have had this very question in mind when they created the Designer Zone, a boutique-lovers' mecca in the ‘off-centered center' of the city. A sort of business alliance made up of roughly 10 locally owned and run unique shops, each store provides a map clearly showing the location of the businesses, most of which are tiny shops tucked away between Borgo Pinti and Santa Croce. Removed from the din of the Duomo crowds, exploring Florence is quite a pleasant experience. Free from street vendors eyeing you from a block away, this collection of shops offers a relaxed shopping experience.


Especially in the case of shops that carry handmade items, the shop owners are eager to tell you how the product was made. Tramando (Borgo Pinti 6/r) sells exclusively handmade textile products. Felted purses, scarves, and other home goods are available in original designs and fun colors. With bolts of fabric and a sewing table as the shop's centerpiece, Sol Gabriel (via Palmieri, 6/r) is an excellent example of the success of opting for depth rather than breadth. The shop sells only handmade handbags, every type from evening clutch to work-a-day sling bags. Each bag is unique and sewn from at least three different materials. Vinyl, silk, and cotton in an array of patterns and bold colors are woven into one elegant oversize purse, with a seat belt strap handle as the finale. Most are less than 100 euro, a small price to pay to be able to carry a piece of fine art on your shoulder every day.


Just a stone's throw away from Red Garter, and worlds apart, is the spritely dual shop of White and Artemisia (via dei Benci, 32/r). The store is both a clothing boutique and a fine faux flower vendor. Silk roses brush up against the beads of necklaces and the seamless combination of the two genres makes you feel like you have discovered the place where nymphs go to shop. The clothes, whimsical and fun, are arranged by color, and the racks boast everything from cocktail dresses to pajamas, all in various fabrics and designs to suit any fancy.


On the corner of the same block is Subdued, a store which is not a member of the Designer Zone but is intriguing nonetheless. It is a cotton-lover's paradise, with everything from blazers to leggings, handbags and sleeveless hoodies in various pastel shades of cotton decorated with polka dots, solids, stripes, and cute prints.


You have probably seen gold*your street dealer (via Verdi, 19/r) stickers all over the backs of stop signs and not even realized it. One of the few companies in Florence to use this semi-subliminal advertising tactic, the shop feels like a slice of New York City. The walls are covered with Nike and Reeboks on display and the ‘street' style photography in the entrance make you realize that this Renaissance city has not neglected the pop scene. While an Italian man tried on what must have been 10 pairs of jeans, I spent so long looking at the New York graffiti book that the staff offered me a chair.


The door handle is a shoelace, and once inside Ninotchka (via dei Pandolfini) seems like a personalized Hot Topic with its t-shirts, pins, keychains (and even a piercing station). I was delighted to see it sells American Apparel, and many other recognizable brands as well.


The salesman beamed at me when I walked into Moltissimo (via Palermi, 27/r) and I beamed back when I saw the selection of jewelry: delicate silvers and bold plastic beads; wooden bracelets and earrings with stones. The shop is small, but I could have spent hours examining each piece of jewelry, much of it for around 20 euro, and the original pen-and-ink drawing that was also for sale.


Right around the corner is another non-Designer Zone boutique. Rosacocomero (Borgo degli Albizi, 23/r) sells intriguing, brightly colored jewelry. Every piece on display is handmade, and the earrings, which range from 5 to 20 euro, let everyone take home a little slice of creativity.


While its products are not handmade by the owner, Il Mondo di Heidi sells the most beautiful handmade Italian leather bags I have found during my time in Florence. If you have been searching for that perfect leather bag or purse but cannot seem to find it in Mercato Nuovo or San Lorenzo, look no farther than this tiny shop off Piazza Salvemini. The saleswoman encouraged me to pick up and feel (‘Morbido, vero?') the hand-worked leather. In oranges, blues, and clean white, the bags of various styles are something new in the spectrum of Italian leather. The shop also has a small selection of scarves, jewelry, and accessories.


While I like to consider myself a shopper who ventures off the beaten path, I can honestly say that I probably would not have found all of these boutiques had I not been armed with my Designer Zone map. This business alliance takes the guesswork out of moving beyond Zara and Massimo Dutti and really caters to anyone, tourist or local, who wants to wear a unique piece of Italian style.



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